The Priceless Gift of Your Full Attention

I call it “multi-tasking.” Jeannie calls it “not paying attention.” As much as I hate to admit it, she’s right. I’d like to think I can ________ (read the newspaper, watch a football game, read a book) AND listen to her at the same time. The simple truth is, I can’t. Nobody can. For all of our gadgets that promise to allow us to do several things at the same time, the human brain simply isn’t geared for multi-tasking. Study after study shows that while we can get more things done, we do them markedly worse than if we had simply done them one at a time.

Couple in a cafe spends leisure time together, she is angry because he is busy on the phone

Add to this another reality—listening, true listening, is hard.

In fact, to actively listen you have to pay attention with your whole body. Your eyes have to watching for clues in body language. Your ears have to be alert to subtle changes in tone and pitch that convey meaning to language. Your body has to be tuned in to sense any fear or anger accompanying the words. This takes a lot of effort. There’s nothing casual about listening, really listening, to someone.

So, here’s what I’m learning.

When Jeannie starts talking to me, I mute the TV or I put down what I’m reading. I look at her. I turn my body toward her. I give her my full attention. I watch her face. I listen to the tone of her voice. I watch what she’s doing with her hands. Every part of her is trying to tell me something. I want to be sure I get it. I want to be sure I get it right, and I want to be sure I get it all.

That’s why I’m learning to give Jeannie my full attention.

Now, I’m not perfect at this; but I’m trying, and the times I get it right are subtle, but real, victories. There’s no one more important to me than Jeannie, and it’s in those moments when she has my full attention that she knows it best from me.

It’s funny—experts are now telling us that it’s no longer about time management.

It’s about “attention management.” Wow. Jeannie’s been telling me that for years. Please don’t mention this to her. She’ll think she’s an expert and will be impossible to live with.

Team “Us”

I spent a lot of my life playing sports. The seasons of my life were football, basketball, and baseball. I never really thought much about winter, summer, or fall. My life was determined by what sport I was playing. Now, I’m not saying I played any of these sports well, but I was always just good enough to make the team. Even with that, I was able to learn some great life lessons from being on a team. 

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The very same things that make a great team also make a great marriage. Such as: 

A great team has a Common Goal. Every player on the team is committed to the same thing—winning the championship. Everyone knows at the end of the season they will be judged by one standard: did they win the championship? In marriage, we assume we’re both committed to the same goal, but we never take the time to articulate the goal we have in mind. Because we never speak it out loud, there’s a danger we’ll each have our own goal in mind and assume the other person agrees with us. Every good team knows what the trophy looks like. Do both of you know what the trophy for your marriage looks like?

A great team has a Common Strategy. That is, everyone knows how the team wants to play the game. Does your team run a wishbone, power I, or a run and shoot? Is the defense based on a 4-3 or 3-4? Everyone on the team knows how the team wants to play the game BEFORE they start the game. Do you and your spouse know the strategy you’re using to reach the common goal? Do you have budget? Clear expectations? No team would win if each player was running a different play. A marriage can’t win when each spouse is running his or her own play. Make sure each of you know HOW you’re getting to your WHERE.

A great team has players with Different Gifts to play different positions. Not everyone can be the quarterback. Someone has to block. Not everyone can be the scorer. Someone has to play defense. No one position is more important than another. Each position has to be played and played well if the team is to win. On great teams, everyone knows their position. In great marriages, each spouse knows how his or her gifts add to the success of the relationship.

Because we each have different gifts, it follows that we have Different Assignments. Play your position and trust your spouse to play theirs. One of the things you learn playing for a good team is you can’t play every position. You have play your position and trust the rest of the team to play theirs. In your marriage, you have certain roles to fulfill. Do your job and/or jobs and trust your spouse to do theirs. It’s the only way a team wins.

And one last thing, a great team celebrates One Victory. When the last game is finally over and the trophy is hoisted high above everyone’s heads, each player knows they own a small part of that trophy, but they also know it’s a team victory. There’s no better feeling in the world than looking at your teammates and remembering all of the hours of practice and now, celebrating the reality of finally being champions. 

I take that back. There is one greater feeling. It’s the moment when you look at your spouse and remember all of the years of sacrifice and know that, together, you’ve won. Maybe it’s paying off the house, or a child graduating. Your trophies will be unique to the two of you. But you’ll know you’re champions. Celebrate this victory. It’s what great teams do.

What Would Jeannie Do?

You don’t have to be around Jeannie (my wife of 35 years) and I for very long to see that we’re very different people. So different, in fact, that some of our friends wonder how we make it work. To be honest, some days WE wonder how we make it work.

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There is, however, a distinct advantage in having someone in your life who is so very different from you—they see life differently, they respond differently to situations, they think differently about…well, about everything. Sometimes, this difference delights and intrigues you. Other times, it infuriates you, but at no time are you left without another option.

Think about what a gift that is. Regardless of what’s going in your life, there’s someone standing right next to you who would do things a little different. Now, at the very least, Jeannie’s alternative makes me think harder about my own decision. Have I thought through this? Have I considered all of the implications? Do I have all of the information I need? In short, have I made the right decision?

On the other hand, sometimes, Jeannie has a better way. (Please don’t tell her I said this…she’ll be impossible to live with.) Sometimes, Jeannie will know something, notice something, think something, or just “feel” something that will lead to a better alternative. She’ll answer the question or solve the problem in a much better way than I would have on my own.

Here’s the extra bonus: because we’ve been together so long, I can have conversations with her without her being there. I know how she’ll answer the question. I know what she’ll be thinking about this or that. And sometimes, in these imaginary conversations with Jeannie, I’ll find a better answer.

So, sometimes when you see me staring off into to space, I’m not daydreaming. I’m talking to Jeannie in my head. And, more times than I want to admit, she’s helping me find a better way.

Yep, you don’t have to be around us long to notice how different Jeannie and I are from each other, and I am very grateful for that difference.

If you want to change “us,” start by changing “you.”

Perhaps you’re like me and one of your New Year’s resolutions was to improve your marriage. Now, this doesn’t mean you have a bad marriage. I think I have a pretty good marriage. I’m sure you do as well, but things can always get better.

If you want to change “us,” start by changing “you.”

So, you begin by making a list of things that, if changed, would make your marriage much better. Your list, no doubt, is a lot like mine. It’s a long list of things that if your spouse would do differently, your marriage would be so much better. (Of course, our spouses have their lists of things that if we would do better, our marriage would be so much better.)

But here’s the cold reality—we can’t control anyone’s behavior but our own. Which means while we may not be able to control exactly what our spouses do, we can control what we do. If you think about it, that’s not bad. It gives us a controlling interest in half of the relationship. That’s more than enough influence to affect real change in a marriage.

Which means if you want to change “us,” you begin by changing “you.” What kind of husband or wife would you be if you had the perfect marriage? What things would you do differently? What things would you not do? What things would you be sure to do if you were the perfect spouse in a perfect marriage?

Now, this can be a pretty exhaustive and exhausting list, but don’t get discouraged. We’re only going to work on one of them. That’s right, just one. Pick one thing on the list, I don’t care how big or how small, and start doing that. Keep on doing this new behavior until it becomes something you do without thinking about it (a habit). Then, pick the next thing on the list.

Don’t wait until your spouse recognizes the change or says “Thank you.” Do it only because you’re wanting to be the perfect spouse in a perfect marriage.

Guess what? When you begin to change, your spouse will as well. You may not even discuss the change, but the change will happen. Instinctively, your spouse will sing harmony to whatever melody you start living. Marriage is a lot like math. If you change one part of the equation, you end up changing the entire equation.

So, do you want to have a better marriage in 2016? Start by working on a better you. You can’t change “us” until you first change “you.”